Category Archives: Academics and intellectuals

What is Whitlam’s higher education legacy?

Gough Whitlam, who died today, is one of the big four of Australian higher education policy: Menzies, Dawkins and Gillard are the other three.

Whitlam is most famous for abolishing tuition fees in Australia’s universities and state-funded colleges from 1974 (here is the original legislation for universities.)

I’ve argued before that free education was a major symbolic success, but in practice not as significant as many people in hindsight believe. Through scholarships, state subsidies and federal subsidies higher education was already free or cheap for most people. A chart I included on university funding sources in the latest edition of Mapping Australian higher education (p. 53) shows that students were only a minor source of university income in the early 1970s.

Nor was Whitlam very successful in lifting higher education attainment rates. While the number of higher education places did grow, the baby boom generation was so large that there was little growth in attainment for them. On this measure, Menzies, Dawkins and Gillard were all much more significant.

What Whitlam did succeed in doing was take over funding responsiblity for higher education from the states, making conditional grants the basis of Commonwealth power over higher education. Technically, the Commonwealth’s power was quite limited. Universities could have refused Commonwealth grants and returned to fee charging if they wanted to. But never stand between a vice-chancellor and money. If there was anything the universities would not do for the Commonwealth’s cash we never found out what that was. As John Dawkins discovered, they were even willing to merge with colleges of advanced education, which were well down the system hierarchy.

Two particular Whitlam-era policies are still in place, although substantially modified. He created a general student income support system, TEAS, to replace various scholarship schemes. This survives through Youth Allowance, Austudy and Abstudy. A needs-based income support system is a more efficient way of funding higher education students than merit-based scholarships, which often go to people from affluent families.

Although completely free higher education lasted less than 15 years, Whitlam’s price control on undergraduate higher education has lasted the full 40 years since 1974. Universities were given back their power to set charges in 2005, but only up to limits determined by the federal government. Christopher Pyne is now trying to abolish these controls, supported for the first time in the post-Whitlam era by a majority of vice-chancellors.

The fact that until recently most vice-chancellors supported undergraduate price control shows Whitlam’s on-going influence. Despite being dissatisfied with their funding rates for all but a handful of those 40 years, many vice-chancellors still maintained the faith that government would give them what they believed they needed. Public funding was the norm when most of them went to university and started their academic careers. Even now, vice-chancellors generally see private funding as a regrettable but necessary departure from this ideal state. Staff and student groups ofen condemn university leaders for this concession. Creating such a powerful default belief about how the world should be shows that Whitlam’s cultural legacy will survive the man’s passing.

Kenneth Minogue, RIP

Sad news over at Catallaxy that Kenneth Minogue has died.

In the 1980s he was one of the political theorists who made me think that I wanted to be one too – I was in the tiny handful of people interested in this K. Minogue rather than the other one. My pre-computer card files list 36 Minogue articles I had stored away for future study. I am rarely much good with titles, but I still like some of his: ‘The Hucksters of Happiness’, ‘The Prison Cell of Political Theory’, and ‘Freedom as a Skill’.

The last one hints at his political position. He was a classical liberal, but presumably influenced by his LSE colleague Michael Oakeshott saw it as based on the culture and practices of Western societies, rather than on single abstract principles such as liberty or natural rights from which all else must be derived. Living in a free society requires ‘skills’ that need to be learned – the quotations in Julie Novak’s Catallaxy obituary from early and late in Minogue’s career show how this was a long-running theme.

I think Minogue’s inductive liberalism is probably a minority position in political theory, or at least there is far more written about grand attempts to create principles to govern society, such as John Rawls’ original position. But in real-world liberalism it is common. The conclusions for liberty, markets, limited government, and so on are still there, but with messy arguments based on precedent, analogy, tradition and many different general principles.

Minogue discusses his ideas in this interview I did with him in 1995. Minogue spoke as he wrote, in well-formed sentences. He was as easy to edit as he was to read.

Kenneth Minogue, RIP.

How ‘public’ should public universities be?

There has been debate about the University of Melbourne’s response to a sex-segregated Islamic event held on campus. But it was an unusual debate, in which the radical feminist Sheila Jeffreys and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott were on much the same side.

U of M VC Glyn Davis pointed this morning to the tensions between gender equality and freedom of association raised by this case.

Some commenters on my Facebook page argued that as a ‘public’ university made a difference to how we should weigh up the conflicting considerations – that even if we should tolerate sex segregation in society generally, it should not happen at the ‘public’ University of Melbourne:

This is, however, a publicly funded university and I assume it’s more then likely that the venue was provided at lower/no cost then a private space; effectively meaning the event was subsidised by the taxpayer. For the sake of reputation of the institution, as well as applying best principles, events that entail gender segregation should be clearly not allowed on campus.

The likes of Glyn Davis must remember that they are public servants.

Most universities in Australia are more akin to government departments than private enterprises, they are established by legislation that allows for extensive control over the way they conduct themselves.

‘Public university’ is not a legal concept. The University of Melbourne’s legislation rather pointedly refers to it as ‘public spirited’ rather than public. University staff are not employed under public service legislation, and the governmnent of the day has no say in academic or professional staff appointments.

In practice, the term ‘public university is used to describe the universities listed in Table A of the Higher Education Support Act 2003. But it is not a term that appears in the legislation.

Table A universities do have greater access to public funds than private higher education providers. Most (though not all – Australian Catholic University is the exception) are subject to some public sector requirements in their own state, perhaps most significantly administrative law obligations such as freedom of information.

But I would generally defend the ‘public spirited’ rather than ‘public’ formulation in the U of M Act. There are good small-c constitutional reasons for thinking that universities should be substantially autonomous of government, places of independent thought and speech. Governments have historically tended to accept that view. Though state governments appoint university or council senate members, they only appoint a minority. State governments especially have taken a laissez-faire approach to academic matters.

To me, public funding should be seen as transaction. Governments are entitled to get what they pay for (such as a number of student places), but this should not give them broader rights over the institution. That some taxpayer money might have been used in building the lecture theatre where the Islamic event was held does not give government any on-going veto power over how the theatre should be used.

None of this means that universities should be immune from criticism. But to me the fact that the U of M was set up by a Victorian government statute, or that it receives Commonwealth funding, does not add anything to the case for preventing sex-segregated events on campus.

Misreadings and criticisms of Graduate Winners

The AFR published a response to Graduate Winners from Caroline McMillen, VC of the University of Newcastle. It provides an opportunity to respond to misreadings and criticisms.

Article starts, my responses in block quotes:

Access to a high-quality university education is the key to a stronger Australian workforce, economy and society. In turn, these are all important contributors to establishing a stronger place for Australia in the world.

An accessible university education is essential to ensure that Australia in what has been called the Asian century becomes a beacon for innovation and competitiveness.

The proposals contained in the Grattan Institute’s Graduate Winners report would jeopardise that future.

The report, which was made public last Monday, presents in measured language a reductive future for higher education in Australia, where students are motivated only by their graduate earning potential and the state withdraws its funding from what is currently recognised as a world-class university system.

Incorrect: The report shows (pages 56 to 59) that interest in the field of study is the top reason for choosing a course, and that a financially-based motivation model cannot explain why so many students with good ATARs choose humanities and performing arts, which have relatively poor employment and income outcomes.

The proposal is to shift the entire benefits and the risks of undertaking a university degree onto each individual student.

Incorrect: The report recommends a 50% cut in tuition subsidies for most courses; the taxpayer further takes risk through the HELP repayment threshold of $49,000 a year.

Read more »

A proposal to politicise university curricula

In this morning’s Australian, I am reported criticising some recommendations of a Universities Australia report on ‘Indigenous cultural competency’.

The report contains examples of things universities are doing to better serve their Indigenous students or give other students knowledge they may need when working with Indigenous people. All this is within the scope of what universities should be doing to educate their students and prepare them for their professional lives. Unfortunately, the report’s recommendations go well beyond necessary, reasonable or desirable initiatives to a much larger political agenda. Consider the first three recommendations in the section on teaching and learning (emphasis added):

Recommendation 1: Embed Indigenous knowledges and perspectives in all university curricula to provide students with the knowledge, skills and understandings which form the foundations of Indigenous cultural competency.
Recommendation 2: Include Indigenous cultural competency as a formal Graduate Attribute or Quality.
Recommendation 3: Incorporate Indigenous Australian knowledges and perspectives into programs according to a culturally competent pedagogical framework.

The ‘all’ in recommendation 1 is a step too far. There are no Indigenous ‘knowledges and perspectives’ on much of what is taught in universities, if by that we mean their traditional knowledge. If it means the ‘knowledges and perspectives’ of modern Indigenous background people, then it is hard to see why these deserve a place in the curriculum (even if academics perhaps need to know what some of their Indigenous students might believe). Nobody has any special insight just because of their ethnic background. At least in theory, the modern university rejects any such claim to authority. Knowledge and theories have to stand on their own, regardless of who advocates them. Read more »

What drives tax and spend opinion?

The latest ANU Poll finds, like all such polls in recent years, that given a choice between reduced taxes and increased spending on services, most people would go for the latter. Report author Professor Ian McAllister observes:

Public opinion on government spending tends to be both secular – in that it is largely unrelated to
partisan debates and changes in government – and cyclical – in that it is responsive to broader
economic conditions. For example, on the latter point, it has often been observed that national
electorates are more likely to favour spending on social services and welfare when economic conditions
are benign, and to favour reduced taxes when economic conditions become harsh.

I agree, having argued for this interpretation in a 2004 paper. But a few years ago Professor McAllister thought that other factors were at work. In a newspaper report on the 2007 version of the tax and spend question, he was reported as saying that: Read more »

Is academic professionalism adequate?

“Over the past two decades, there has been a serious diminution in professionalism as we are
compelled more and more to complete accountability/kpi measures, as if jumping over ‘productivity’
hurdles could substitute for professional ethics.”

- quote from an academic, p.24 of the Australian Academic Profession in Transition report.

Overall, 37.3 per cent of academics have never undertaken training in university teaching,
and 72.1 per cent indicate that training is not mandatory in their institution.

- report of survey research, p. 25 of the Australian Academic Profession in Transition report.

As this report makes clear, collecting data and filling in forms – administrivia, as Conrad calls it – is the bane of academic life. I’m quite prepared to believe that some of it is unnecessary and much of the rest could be delegated to administrative staff.

But I am much less prepared to believe that we can put our faith in the ‘professionalism’ of academics. Quite clearly in my view, academia failed to develop a proper professional ethos around teaching. Though things have improved in the last 20 years, still a very large minority of academics have not undertaken any training in one of the key tasks of their occupation. The previously abysmal results recorded in the survey sent to completing students are now reasonable though not great.

Until the norms of good teaching practice are internalised in the academic profession, external pressures to protect and promote student interests are necessary.